A lost Whitney and the lost ’80s

20 Feb

Sitting at home for the past few days with the flu, I’ve had time to peruse the Net for tributes and memories to Whitney Houston, my first childhood idol. Since she died, I’ve been astounded at how sad I feel.

I haven’t followed her career since the mid-’90s but I spent a good part of my elementary school years listening to her first three albums. “Whitney Houston” was the first tape I ever owned. So it didn’t take me long to understand that it wasn’t only Whitney, the star, I was mourning but the Whitney of my childhood – the upbeat, pretty VOICE that made us dance and sing and conquered all.

There was something so pure and inviting about Whitney back then. Watch this clip from the 1986 Grammys (it’s worth watching just to see the other nominees and Dionne Warwick!). She is so young, so naive, so lacking in confidence, that she seems like a child herself. The hair, the dress, the moves- it’s just all so innocent and ’80s. (Note: some of my astute family members may notice that Whitney’s cute little red number is not unlike my mother’s legendary “Billy dress”, the fuchsia gown she successfully reinvented and wore to numerous weddings throughout the ’80s.)

It was this Whitney that a friend and I spent hours trying to call (by phone!) so that we could profess our unconditional love to her. It was to this girl-woman’s voice we made up our jazz-dance moves to perform at recitals and summer-camp shows. This is Whitney before the drugs, before Bobby, before the mediocre hits, and before her tragic end. This is how I want to remember her.

So much of this nostalgia for me is selfish, because I want to associate her with my pure and happy childhood memories, a time which was simpler not only because I was younger but because the world was younger and not so information-hungry and intrusive. Would kids ever look a celebrity up in a phone book today? Now everything is accessible, whereas then stars and TV and music still had a mystical, untouchable appeal. It saddens me that children today will never have such a pure experience.

These memories completely juxtapose the woman found unconscious underwater in an LA hotel last week. We all knew she did drugs and that Bobby was a horrible husband. But I didn’t imagine the extent of her self-destruction until I saw this interview with Oprah.

In her late 40s, supposedly clean and divorced from Bobby, Whitney is as fragile and vulnerable as ever. But instead of the cheerfulness and optimism of her debut, this was a woman defeated.  She tells about trying to please her abusive husband to beyond her breaking point – even after they were both wrecked by drugs, he was cheating on her “and dragging dirt into her home.” She hadn’t really grown or matured over all those years of fame and suffering. She just had many battle scars to show for it.

As sad as Whitney’s story is, it’s not hard to understand. The shy woman with the enormous voice couldn’t handle the stardom. It’s always sad to see the bubble burst and within it your childhood idol self-destruct. Yet more than disappointment, I feel sorry for her. I think she’d probably have admitted, too, that her early years were the best. And for those of us who loved her as innocents, we should always remember her as such.

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